Martin Seligman is widely considered the father of Positive Psychology, the scientific study of character strengths and virtues, and what goes into living a rich and fulfilling life.
According to Seligman’s new book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being a fulfilling life involves much more than just experiencing positive emotions. He abbreviates his new theory on well-being as “PERMA.” Each letter stands for:
P – Positive Emotions – experiencing joy and pleasure.
E – Engagement (or flow) – being consciously involved in our activities.
R – Relationships – having enjoyable and supportive interactions with others.
M – Meaning – creating a purposeful narrative about our lives.
A – Accomplishments – completing our goals and following our core values.
Happiness: More than just positive feelings
All aspects of “PERMA” represent certain components of happiness, but according to Seligman not every one is necessary to live a flourishing life. In a recent interview with TIME, Seligman was quoted as saying:
- “One of the things psychologists used to say was that if you are depressed, anxious or angry, you couldn’t be happy. Those were at opposite ends of a continuum. I believe that you can be suffering or have a mental illness and be happy — just not in the same moment that you’re sad.
What convinced me, actually, when I first went into the positive psychology field about 15 years ago, was this: I thought that the correlation between being depressed and happy would be -1.0. [In lay terms, that means they're opposite; you can't be both.]
There are about 20 studies and the correlation is only -0.2. There’s plenty of room to both be depressed and have high positive emotion — and not be bipolar.
We’re trying to do something liberating by saying even if you [are depressed], you don’t get consigned to the hell of unhappiness. You can have meaning, accomplishment, engagement and good relationships, even if you are dull on the positive affect side.”
These ideas resonate very deeply with a lot of the content I write here at The Emotion Machine.
For example, just a couple days ago I wrote an article “Depression: The Yin of Happiness,” which tries to point out that certain bouts of depression can even be beneficial toward long-term happiness. Depression can drive us to discover a deeper understanding of ourselves; and while positive affect may be temporarily diminished, there are still opportunities to extract meaning and strengthen the story of our lives.
Take Viktor Frankl for example, a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor who suffered tremendously harsh conditions while in concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Frankl concluded through his experiences that even under the most wretched circumstances, an individual can still find fulfillment in life by creating meaning in their lives. Even suffering can be meaningful, and being able to persist through suffering is in-itself a kind of triumph.
Similarly, Seligman is now spending a lot of his time applying PERMA theory to the U.S. military in order to reduce rates of PTSD. He is teaching soldiers how to become more resilient and optimistic, and in many cases individuals experience tremendous growth from their painful experiences (there is now an emerging term for this psychological phenomenon: post-traumatic growth). Apparently, the existentialist philosopher Nietszche may have been right when he said, “That which does not kill us often makes us stronger.”
The main point here is that one does not need to always be experiencing great pleasure or joy to necessarily find fulfillment or improve the state of their lives. Happiness may be just as much dependent on our subjective view of circumstances as the circumstances themselves. Seligman’s PERMA theory is well-informed of this truth.
Planning on the future, not dwelling on the past.
One key component in Seligman’s latest research is the idea of prospection, the act of looking forward into the future, rather than just focusing on aspects of our past.
“The basic rock bottom premise of psychology for the last 150 years is that we’re driven by our past. Positive psychology has come to convince me that we’re drawn into the future.
I’m very interested in what is called “prospection.” As we’re talking now, what you’re doing is thinking about how you can write this up, whether to use or reject what I’m saying now. Lots of human activity is making mental simulations about the future, [or prospection]. I’ve been writing something on the ubiquity of prospection and arguing that the basic premise that humans are driven by past is wrong.
I’m all for past influences, the question is whether they are deterministic. Freud and the behaviorists argue that what we are at any given moment is billiard balls whose past determines our future course. That doesn’t take into account that we are forever generating internal representations of positive futures and choosing among them.”
The big lesson here? The past is in the past, and you have a choice right here and right now to envision a better future and begin to take small steps to accomplish that future. This act of positively and constructively looking forward may be one of the most important tools we have to achieving a flourishing life.
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